Manchester, Kansas – The Pain Of Coming Home
While out driving the backroads of rural America, documenting Lost Americana, I come across places that really standout maybe about once a year, or so. Tin Cup & St. Elmo, Colorado; Buffalo Gap, South Dakota; Bradford, Pennsylvania; to name a few. And then there is Manchester, Kansas. No place has captured my imagination more than this little train stop north of Abilene, KS, and I think you’ll know why when you see these photos.
In January of 2008 I made my first Lost Americana trip into Kansas. After spending the morning photographing in Missouri, I made my way West on Interstate 40 past Kansas City and into the more sparsely populated parts of the state West of Manhattan.
As I have ever since I started driving across America photographing abandoned rural scenes, I would use an atlas with a page for each state and draw a line as I drove along. Marking down the roads I took along with a mark for where I started a new day. In years past, before Google streetview, or GPS tagged photos, it was all guessing. I looked for counties with nothing but small towns. The less roads in an area the better. I would follow rivers & train tracks which usually led towns that had been formed in the 1800s. How I ended up in Manchester is as much a mystery to me as it is to anyone. I had actually gotten off the highway an hour and a half earlier at exit 338 by Maple Hill, a place that fit perfectly into where I would normally explore. A pretty remote place in its own right, the only thing you could see from the exit was an abandoned gas station and plowed fields to the horizon.
However I got back on the highway and didn’t exit again till I got to Abilene. From there I went north headed towards the town of Industry, but for whatever reason took a left and headed west on a dirt road. I slowed as a grove of trees forced a slight curve in the road and as I past those trees there was a wooden sign shaped like an arrow and painted baby blue that said “Manchester.” I made a turn onto Robinson Street and headed into the center of this town of 98 residents, which felt more like 20, past trees damaged by a recent ice storm almost making the town look like it was the victim of a tornado. As I made my way to the intersection of Main Street, to this day I am still in awe of the view I saw.
A funny story about that initial view of Main Street was that as I approached the stop sign at the intersection of Main & Robinson, I was so blown away by the view that I failed to fully apply my brakes. I only ended up stopping in the middle of the intersection because I was about to pass the buildings by. When I did finally stop and was able to pick my jaw up off the steering wheel, I promptly pulled over and took advantage of the fading sun light. The first photo of this post was the image I took before setting up my giant 4×5 camera.
By far my favorite image from Manchester and one of my most popular photos overall, is this image below, which was made just before the sun came up the next morning with the 4×5 camera. (Don’t know what a 4×5 camera is read the “About the Camera” section on my website). Rarely on these trips do I stay in one location for multiple days, but I had to get more images from here before I continued on to Texas, which was my turn around destination. It’s also very rare for me to return to an area this far away from my home in Illinois, yet in 2014 I found myself taking a 200 mile detour to see Manchester once again.
The second time I visited was in August of 2014, with my two sons. I wanted to get a few more photos of this town and get a posed shot of me and the boys together in front of it, so some day they could say they were there. The buildings were definitely in worse shape than they were just 6 years prior. The general store and the building next to it now had the words “KEEP OUT” spray painted on the front of them and windows were boarded up. A peek inside revealed that the roof and north facing wall on the Kansas fencepost limestone building had started to collapse in. I could see large beams from the second floor had fallen and could clearly look out the rear-upper part of the building. I imagined it could still be saved, but in its current state wouldn’t last more than a few years at best. If only the owner would be willing to sell them for real cheap, maybe some preservation work could be done?
Over the years I have done a little research, talked with former locals, and bumped into a few residents on my return trip. It seems that Manchester, like many small towns did, had seen glory days in the past. The general store on Main Street alone would hint at that. While originally the town was called Keystone when it was plotted by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1887, it was changed to Manchester in 1890. While it’s not clear if this was a nod to Manchester, England, it wouldn’t be a stretch as many British people settled in Kansas as a result of heavy recruitment of the British by the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
Beyond the general store of course was a depot for the A.T.&S.F. R.R., which was part of a junction, with one track going west and the other going north. Local lore has it that the town would have grown as big, or out paced nearby Abilene had the primary depot stop stayed at Manchester and not been switched to Abilene, a point maybe not well founded considering Abilene was already a town of 2,000 when Manchester was built, but none the less still mentioned some 100 years later. A photo of the original Manchester train depot can be seen here. A view of what appears to be a different, but not recently used train depot in Manchester can be seen in this video.
Others have talked about an Opera house that had one time stood in the town, as well as the areas first Ford dealership. There was of course a school, bank, sheriff’s office and more that you would expect from a town of it’s size at the turn of the 20th century (Manchester had 250 residents by 1910).
Just next to what was an electrical supplies company (and maybe Ford Dealership) sits a nondescript cement shed, which was pointed out to me that it was actually an old jail cell, which I’m assuming was only a part of a former wooden structure that was the sheriff’s office.
If I won the lottery
If you are like me, chances are when you travel the backroads and visit the small towns you’ve seen a place here, or there that gets you thinking “man if I won the lottery, I’d buy this place and fix it back up to it’s original form. I know this sounds far fetched, but a part of me had always wanted to buy those 4 buildings on Main Street. Secure them from further deterioration and possibly find a way to make this some kind of local, or roadside attraction. I didn’t think it would be that hard, considering their conditions and locations something like $10,000-$15,000 a property, maybe a little less for the smaller two. Add in the vacant land and I bet I could do it all for around $50,000. I thought Ghost Town billboards on the highway could bring in travelers. Wild West themed fairs in town. Heck, there’s the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad with it’s running steam locomotive just 15 miles away, we could absolutely get some type of excursion trip to this town. “If you build it, they will come.” I thought.
At one point I was even checking Zillow to see if they were for sale, or if they had a estimate on their value. So imagine how heart broken I was when a guy I met in town told me that each building sold for $800 at auction a few years ago to some guy from New Jersey. Essentially all of Main Street was bought for about two thousand dollars. I wanted to cry.
Nostalgia is derived from the ancient Greek words for “return home” & “pain/ache.” While it was first used to associate “home sickness” in soldiers, it now is more defined as meaning a longing for, or remembering of a time that has past. Generally happier times, but also sad. As a city boy myself, what I do has always been more of a “wonder” about what life was like then & there, than an actual longing for the days of old. I never lived in a town like this. I never lived on a farm. There was a sadness that it is disappearing, but never and ache, and of course not a feeling to return home.
So while I understood it, seeing things you once loved, having changed so drastically. Wishing that you would have taken more photos. Shot some video just driving around town. Keep that brick from the sidewalk on Main Street. I never really knew that pain of returning home… Until now.
Just this last week while talking about cool places to photograph with Kansas based Instagram photographer Francesca Catalini, she mentioned this cool old general store in Manchester she had been meaning to checkout, but when she got there it was nothing but a pile of Limestone with one column sticking out of the ground.
That was it. August of 2014 was the last time I would get to see Manchester as brilliant as I remembered it. And I can’t help, but stop and think what generations of others must have thought when they visited in the years following the town’s peak in the 1920’s. What was it like to visit parents who still lived in the town when it lost 40% of population from 1960 to 1970? The stores that must have closed, the homes that were just left empty.
Some places you can never go back to, and I think Manchester is now one of those places for me. I did a quick Google Maps search of some other homesteads I photographed around Dickinson County back in 2008. It seems most of them are gone now as well. The news about Manchester has hit home for me and now more than ever I feel a need to go and photograph these places before they disappear. To interview the people who live here before they move away, or die.
And maybe someday I’ll win the lottery and save the next town I find like Manchester.
A letter from the past
Letters from Leslie Perkins Snow, examiner for the U. S. bureau of pensions, to his wife Susan, about Manchester, KS (via the Kansas Historical Society).
April 15th, 1888 Junction City
My DEAR SUSIE:
I am as usual — well — and at J. C. There has been nothing particularly exciting during the past seven days — though variety is one of the ingredients of my present existence. The minister said today The experience of your life is constant activity. I don’t suppose he was alluding to me in particular but it hits — as perhaps many other expressions not quite as complimentary would.
Well at Tescott my host was a newly married man and what of pet names and other kind words were wanting were too few to be missed. That sentence is not a quotation if it does sound a little mythical. But I amused myself (when I wasn’t otherwise busy) watching the smiles and other outward expressions of the bliss and confidence which vibrated between the Snooks for that was the name.
I then handled the claim of Squire Apple. He was as well a square sort of a man. I delight to examine a real worthy claim. We had to drive quite a good deal through the country for witnesses and we stopped for dinner one day with one of the numerous Smith family. It was an ideal hour. Everything was neat and all were happy in a little house 15 feet square. You could almost see your face in the floor, it was scrubbed so clean — although in a land of mud. I came to Abilene Thursday and went to Manchester, the new town on the new R. R. — a junction of two branches of the Santa Fe. One year ago no houses were to be seen on the present site. There are one hundred now scattered over a territory sufficiently wide to accommodate a city of moderate size. The grass still grows in the streets and everything has a sort of new and fresh aspect. They are always glad to see a stranger for it adds for the time being another atom of activity. They always try to persuade him to buy a few town lots and never forget to tell what a smart town they have and what a city it’s going to make by and by.
I go to Salina next week.
Goodbye for the present
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